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50 years on, Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy lives out loud

On April 4, 1968, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. -- in Memphis, Tennessee, to support striking sanitation workers -- was shot to death on a hotel balcony. What followed was a national reckoning and the greatest wave of social unrest since the Civil War. Fifty years later, Americans are honoring King’s sacrifice, in hopes of connecting his message to today’s struggles. Judy Woodruff reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    On April 4, 1968, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was shot to death on a hotel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee. His death literally changed the world.

    We begin our coverage with a look back at Dr. King's legacy and why, 50 years later, it is still a work in progress.

    Three generations retraced the steps of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. this week on U.S. Highway 61. It was here in Memphis that the civil rights leader delivered his 1968 mountaintop speech.

  • Martin Luther King Jr.:

    I have seen the promised land. I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land.

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    He arrived in Memphis in early April that year to support the striking sanitation workers, amidst planning what was to be a massive presence in the nation's capital the so-called Poor People's Campaign.

    But he was assassinated by James Earl Ray on April 4. What followed instead was a reckoning. The riots after the King assassination, also known as the Holy Week Uprising, represented the greatest wave of social unrest the United States had experienced since the Civil War.

    In the years preceding his death, the Baptist minister used his well-known tactics of nonviolence and civil disobedience. King led the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott and, in 1962, as the first president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, launched an unsuccessful campaign against segregation in Albany, Georgia.

    He helped organize the nonviolent 1963 protests in Birmingham, Alabama.

    Then came the 1963 March on Washington, where he delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech.

  • Martin Luther King Jr.:

    I have a dream that one day, this nation will rise up, live out the true meaning of its creed. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    In 1965, he helped to organize the Selma-to- Montgomery marches, and took the movement to Chicago to work on segregated housing.

    In his final years, he expanded his focus to include opposition to poverty and the Vietnam War. As this happened, King's popularity began to wane, after he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. He began to lose momentum as he moved attention from civil rights in the South to tackling segregation and poverty in the North.

    A 1966 Gallup poll found nearly seven in 10 Americans viewed King unfavorably.

    Today, people honored King's sacrifice at the memorial dedicated to him in Washington, hoping to connect his message to today's struggles.

    Around the country, there are all sorts of reminders of his work, and hundreds of streets in the U.S. have been renamed in his honor.

    And children everywhere read and reenact King's "I Have a Dream" speech every MLK Day, a federal holiday by a vote of Congress, and signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1983.

  • Student:

    Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But it's the deeds, the actual living out of his legacy that 9-year-old Yolanda King addressed at the recent March For Our Lives gun control rally in Washington.

    The granddaughter of Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King had a call to action of her own.

  • Yolanda King:

    My grandfather had a dream that his four little children will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.

    I have a dream that enough is enough.

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • Yolanda King:

    And that this should be a gun-free world, period.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Yet King's dream are still largely unfulfilled. According to a new Associated Press poll, just over half of all Americans, including 79 percent of blacks and 44 percent of whites, said African-Americans continue to face disadvantages to getting ahead.

    This week's events were intended try to bear witness to the words of Martin Luther King, and maybe help fulfill more of his vision. King himself laid out in a 1968 sermon, which came to be known as the Drum Major Instinct, how he would like to be remembered.

    He spoke then at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta-

  • Martin Luther King Jr.:

    Yes, if want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice.

    Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter. I won't have any money to leave behind. I won't have the fine and luxurious things of life to leave behind. But I just want to leave a committed life behind.

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